American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 20

The Humanities in the Schools

Stanley N. Katz

Cultural Equity?
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The Women's Studies Movement
Catharine R. Stimpson

The Humanities and Public Education

Stanley N. Katz
American Council of Learned Societies

This evening represents the beginning of the culmination of a dream I have had since assuming the presidency of ACLS six years ago.

Our organization is best known as a confederation of the national humanities and social science disciplinary societies in this country, a leading provider of post-doctoral research fellowships, the administrator of area studies and international faculty exchange programs, and the publisher of scholarly reference books. Since our founding in 1919 as the United States representative to the Union Internationale Academique, we have been one of the most important higher education organizations in the world, and the voice of the scholarly humanities community in this country. We must continue to serve these functions if there is to be a healthy and vital humanities and social sciences community.

But I think that we must do much more if ACLS is both to serve the interests of the humanities broadly construed, and if we are to receive the public support the humanities deserve. I have argued for the past six years that we must expand our efforts at both ends of the life cycle, paying more heed to the needs of out-of-school adults and, crucially, to children in primary and secondary schools—an area in which ACLS pioneered through the use of summer workshops for high school teachers in the 1960s. We have been expanding our concern for adults through work with the Federation of State Humanities Councils. And for several years we have tried to familiarize ourselves with the leading K–12 curricular reform efforts (an area in which I have personally been active for 30 years due to my commitment to the improvement of American history teaching in the schools).

It proved difficult, however, to develop a fundable K–12 project for an organization whose focus has been almost entirely post-doctoral research. Funders quite reasonably asked who we were to presume to enter the crowded world of pre-collegiate education, and I am deeply grateful to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, and our anonymous donor for their vote of confidence in this neophyte effort. As recently as 24 months ago I would not have believed that there would be an ACLS K–12 project during my tenure in office.

Since I have already confessed that I am a dreamer, let me further confess that I view this project in which you have joined us as the beginning of an ACLS Education Office, which will focus our efforts on questions of education all across the life span, but especially on the K–16 years. Those of you who are professionals in elementary and secondary education will surely have noted the reluctance of those of us in “higher” education to attend systematically to questions of teaching and learning. The politics of higher education (for what I take to be the wrong reasons) are now forcing the colleges and universities rightly to take questions of education more seriously, so that it is now opportune for us to forge more lasting ties among educators of all kinds, and to share our experience, expertise, and wisdom.

You may be amused to hear that this point was made at my expense just two weeks ago. My son, Derek, a musician, has just married a wonderful young woman named Sally whom he met because she played the cello in his orchestra in Boston. Soon after they met, they realized that their fathers had been closest friends in high school and college many, many years ago. Sally’s father, Mike Greenebaum, went on to a master’s degree in teaching (and later an Ed.D.), and a career as a history teacher and elementary school principal in Amherst, Massachusetts. I went on to a Ph.D. in history and a career as a university teacher and academic administrator. Mike wrote a brief musical comedy telling the story of our intertwined family histories for the wedding reception. About the first years of our friendship, one of the characters crooned that, after college, “Stan went into college teaching and Mike went into education.” Touché. Well, I think that he is right, and I’m now trying to make it up.

The underlying premise of the program in which we are engaged is that there is an unnecessary and counterproductive fracture within the teaching profession, between those who teach youngsters in the K through 12 years and those who teach grades 13 to 16. We should share the same concerns for the education of our students, although of course our strategies, techniques, and interim goals will frequently be quite different. I do not mean to trivialize important differences, among them the fact that for some post-secondary teachers the activity of teaching is subordinated to research, while for some pre-collegiate teachers the transfer of content-knowledge is less important than the maintenance of discipline. And so on. At least some of the time, nevertheless, we are all committed to conveying the most advanced and useful knowledge to our students. For those students we are very similar actors at different points in the educational process.

What happens educationally in the schools is important to post-secondary educators not only because pre-collegiate teachers prepare some of their students for us, but also because they have both experiential and theoretical knowledge about pedagogy (both teaching and learning) to impart to us, though we have seldom taken their expertise with sufficient seriousness. Conversely, the disciplinary professionals of the colleges and universities have subject matter expertise which is essential to school teachers. Both need to learn from each other, but until fairly recently there were few institutional mechanisms for the sharing of knowledge and experience across the high school-college crevasse. It is now, happily, trite to say so, but such sharing has to be carefully structured so that no one is condescended to. There are many examples of mutually beneficial processes, ranging from both discipline- and university-based high school-college alliances through the efforts of innovative colleges of education to joint efforts in particular fields (such as geography, mathematics, and classics).

When my colleagues and I began to plan a national education project, we surveyed the 52 learned societies which comprise ACLS to determine what they were doing with respect to K–12 education in their fields. We were gratified to discover that all of the large societies and several of the smaller ones (19 in all) had significant pre-collegiate programs. Most were also actively attempting to recruit school teachers to their professional meetings and other activities. This convinced us that the process of transmitting disciplinary knowledge was being attended to by the several fields, but left us with the sense that something needed to be done to move this process to center stage and national attention, especially in the fields of humanistic knowledge.

Ironically, however, “humanities” is not a term much used in our schools, although humanistic subjects such as literature, classics, language, philosophy, and history all appear at various points in K–12 curricula. There is no professional category of pre-collegiate humanities education, either in the education schools or in school systems, although, for better or worse, “social studies” (though not “social science”) has a recognized place in training and in the schools. It seems odd that our curricula should have taken the humanities so much for granted as not to label them pedagogically. Categorical recognition is not the aim of the ACLS project, but we would like to see more attention paid to the humanities in the schools. Not so much more time, for we recognize that there are only so many hours in a teaching day, but more thoughtful consideration of the educational function and relevance of the subjects which comprise the humanities, and more adequate presentation of humanistic ideas and materials.

This is particularly true at a time when the humanities fields are among the most exciting to undergraduate students. The humanities work extremely well pedagogically, forming the core of liberal education, and they could work much better than they currently do in the schools. At least one of the aims of elementary and secondary education, after all, is to provide a common core of liberal education for youngsters in a democratic society, but the nature of an appropriate liberal education in the schools has not received much attention since the days of John Dewey.

It is not just that more “up-to-date” humanities knowledge should be conveyed (though no high school teacher would aspire to teach the “old” math or outdated physics), but rather that the intellectual and pedagogical centrality of the humanities is as applicable to schools as to colleges. College humanities teachers cannot tell school teachers how to enhance the humanistic content of their curricula, but they can work with them to make it happen. That is the philosophy behind this ACLS project.

There is no easy way to define the humanities. The legislation which created the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965 simply listed the obvious fields, among them philosophy, literature, music, history, political science, anthropology, and so forth. The belated 1982 Congressional charter of the ACLS said only that we are responsible for the humanities and the humanistic aspects of the social sciences. Neither document specifies the arts as aspects of humane knowledge and creativity, but surely they must be included. One can say, negatively, that the fields of the humanities are those which study human experience, past and present, by means other than those of precise measurement. As Justice Potter Stewart commented on pornography, we may not be able to define the humanities, but we know humanistic work when we see it.

This is not the moment for a learned lecture on classical humanism, or its revival in the 16th century, but most western and eastern cultures do have long traditions of the humanistic study of mankind—of thought, politics, artistic expression, and other types of behavior. At the end of the last century, in the higher education of Europe and the United States, the several types of humanistic knowledge were categorized into “fields” of knowledge as the newly emerging research universities rationalized their organization and the newly self-aware disciplines claimed professional status.

History, for instance, became a “department,” with the Ph.D. in history as its certification and with the newly-formed American Historical Association as its professional organization. And, likewise, philosophy, literature, and the other fields that now compromise the humanities divisions of our universities took on their modern form. There were and are divisions of opinion about allegiances—Is political science in the humanities or social sciences? Are political theorists social scientists or mathematical philosophers humanists?—but by and large the humanities departments of the university are those which study human activity from a non-behavioral perspective. And in any case there are close linkages between the normative and behavioral study of human life.

But the classical architecture has begun to crumble. After all, anything in our culture more than a century old is an antique. There are at least two new forces undermining the old foundations: the weakening of disciplinary boundaries and the popularity of new scholarly topics which cannot be defined in traditional disciplinary terms.

For more than a generation, scholarly work in the humanities has become simultaneously cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary for the simple reason that scholars have become concerned with problems which cannot be easily solved in straightforward disciplinary terms. Let me use my own career as an example. I earned my Ph.D. in American History with a dissertation on 18th-century Anglo-American politics. Studying political behavior in colonial America, however, I soon began to focus on legal institutions, and realized that I needed to know some law in order to understand my subjects. So I went to law school for a year, but returned to teach both American colonial history and legal history in a history department. After a couple of years, however, I moved to a law school and extended my research to constitutional law, both contemporary and historical, still inquiring into why Americans structured their political institutions as they do.

In more recent years, I have begun to wonder why Americans created an “independent sector,” neither government nor business, to accomplish important social tasks, and I have begun to work on the behavior of not-for-profit institutions. All along, I have had a special interest in religion and religious institutions. During the 30 years of my teaching career, I have trained undergraduates and graduate students in history, law, art, journalism, political science, and sociology.

What would you say is my field? I may have lost track, but I believe I belong to the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the American Studies Association, the Law and Society Association, the Selden Society, the Osgoode Society, the Conference on Critical Legal Studies—and probably others. I have been president of the Organization of American Historians and the American Society for Legal History. I am surely basically an historian, but my research and teaching have been driven by my pedagogical, intellectual, and political interests rather than by the traditional job description of the “American historian.”

The second anti-disciplinary pressure in academia is the tendency of scholars to define themselves by the problems they address rather than the techniques they use. I have mentioned my interest in the not-for-profit sector—there is already a small group of scholars who define themselves as specialists in philanthropy, but who were trained as sociologists, economists, or historians. Much more important are the rapidly emerging fields of African-American Studies and Women’s Studies, and in general the movement toward cultural studies. These new interests put pressures on the classical departments and have led to the creation of numerous new programs in colleges and in universities. Partly as a matter of the inherent disciplinary conservatism of the humanities and partly due to very real economic constraints, relatively few new humanities departments have been formed, and we remain unclear about proper training in these new fields of interest. In the sciences, of course, the natural course has been to disaggregate old departments and even to create entirely new ones as research developments dictate the need.

But, of course, there are a great many other new forces making for change in the humanities. I’ll try to suggest at least some of them this evening simply to give you a notion of the variety of activity and the sense of change.

Technology has had a dramatic impact. While I have made the point that humanists seldom employ precise measurement or largescale computation, the computer revolution has had a range of dramatic effects on our work. Perhaps the most important is the creation of electronic databases for everything from bibliographical information (you can’t use the information if you cannot locate it) to full-text databases.

I’ll give just two examples of the latter type. One would be the two major legal databases (LEXIS and WestLaw) which contain all legal decisions and much other data (legislation, regulation) in full text, fully machine-searchable. Another type is the Dartmouth Dante project, which has entered into machine-readable form all of the commentaries on the Divine Comedy, or the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, which contains on a single CD-Rom all of the classical Greek texts written before 700 A.D. This means that the scholar at her desk at home can summon up vast amounts of information, and manipulate them in ways it would have taken 100 19th-century scholars a century to accomplish. And note that this information is theoretically accessible on-line or on-disk anywhere in the country (or world), a radically democratic development when compared to the traditional scholarly advantage of those who worked in the universities with the largest libraries.

There are, of course, many other beneficial consequences of the electronic revolution (not the least of them the electronic library catalogue), but I particularly want to notice the capacity to communicate by computer. This links the scholar not only to the new electronic sources of information, wherever they may be, but also to other scholars by e-mail. I keep in touch with colleagues in Germany, England and Australia this way, and can exchange information with them cheaply and instantaneously.

Which leads me to the next new pressure: the internationalization of the scholarly community. This process began in earnest with the development of the jet aircraft, but it has been greatly stimulated by the ease of computer communication, the problem-orientation of research, and the end of the Cold War. The relevant scholarly community in all fields of the humanities is now an international community, and this has had an invigorating impact upon American scholarship, which for too long was dependent upon the beneficial impact of the remarkable group of European intellectual refugees whom the Nazis bequeathed to the United States. It is important to recognize that internationalization will continue to have a profound cultural impact upon the often parochial character of native American thinking, suggesting new approaches, themes and problems.

Another strong new pressure, less obviously beneficial than internationalization, is the dramatic increase in the specialization of humanities research and teaching. As the teaching profession exploded demographically in the 1960s, the combination of the large numbers of new graduate students doing dissertation research with the development of new research methodologies and interests produced a vast flow of scholarship, much of which was much more tightly focused than that of early generations of humanities scholars.

As with a microscope, the narrowing of the field of view can produce important discoveries, but it also tends to obscure the larger context. Perhaps more important, specialized scholars sometimes prefer to teach quite narrowly defined courses which undergraduate students have a hard time contextualizing. When it comes to transferring this specialized knowledge to the earlier years of schooling, some sophisticated translation will be required. Conversely, exposure to the traditionally broader focus of pre-collegiate education may produce important pedagogical insights for university teachers.

Which brings us to perhaps the most heralded of the new pressures on humanities research and teaching: multiculturalism. Two and perhaps all three of the other speakers at this conference will discuss multiculturalism, so that I will mention only a few obvious points. The first is that humanists can no longer ignore the fact that the humanities have multiple traditions. Without confronting the problem of priority or superiority, we are everywhere reminded that there a great many traditions in the study of human thought and behavior—not just the Euro-American tradition and those of East Asia (the two most commonly taught and studied in the United States), but many, many others. Our students of other than European origin demand to know about their cultural roots, just as our faculty colleagues of other than European origin increasingly turn their scholarly mirrors on their own past. The result has been an explosion of interest in “foreign” cultures and a vast enrichment of the parameters of humanistic teaching and research in this country.

But the movement to multiculturalism has brought in its wake some serious difficulties. We have too few teachers trained in the less common languages and cultures, and too little in the way of source material for research. The racial, ethnic, and national enthusiasms, which frequently accompany multiculturalism, can lead to a new sort of xenophobia, introspection, and cultural antagonism. The historic politicization of the academy has been exacerbated by the newly invigorated cultural allegiances, and the intervention of partisan politics into the educational sphere has proved too tempting to resist. And yet most thoughtful people agree that the myth of American cultural homogeneity has lost whatever shred of intellectual plausibility it might have had earlier in this century. One of the principal challenges to the humanities is the clarification of pedagogically and intellectually responsible approaches to multiculturalism at all levels of education.

I want to mention one final development which has had a dramatic impact on the humanities in higher education, and that is its new inclusiveness. It is no exaggeration to say that, as recently as a generation ago, the humanities focused on old, elite (and largely Euro-American) cultural texts and problems. It was the case in every field, from music to philosophy. But now every aspect of human life seems suitable for serious humanistic study—all social classes, all the areas of the world, all periods of time (including the present), and all activities. Needless to say, women and African-Americans in particular have become leading subjects of study, but so have the sorts of mundane activity which the concentration on “high” culture caused to be overlooked: work, birth and death, play, and anything else for which a text exists.

Corresponding to this subject-matter inclusiveness has been a remarkable expansion of the idea of the “text.” Humanists now claim to be able to read non-literate texts of all kinds, from religious and secular ceremonies to culinary traditions. We “read” styles of dress, patterns of sexual behavior, sports, photographs, buildings, popular songs. And to do so we have developed a great variety of new research techniques, since the old modes of reading traditional literary texts do not work for our new universe of subjects. My feeling is that it is this new inclusiveness that best characterizes the modern humanities. What an exciting period it is! Take African-American Studies as an example. Just think of the significance of the discoveries by Skip Gates and others of a large body of literature created by African-American women, the use by Eugene Genovese of slave songs, the identification by Peter Wood of the persistence of West African languages in the colonial American South, or even the controversial assertions about slave plantation agricultural productivity by Stan Engerman and Bob Fogel. The field of American Studies is currently swept along by a focus on popular culture, with serious work on movies, radio programs, beauty contests, and ethnic patterns of behavior. I could continue the list almost indefinitely, but I know that the after-dinner speaker must control his enthusiasms.

I have spent so much time on the transformation of humanistic scholarship because I think it is immediately relevant to our common concerns with elementary and secondary education. Ironically, the fact that the humanities have never been institutionalized in the K–12 years may provide us with an opportunity to incorporate much of the new material and many of the novel approaches into the curricula of the schools. We do not have to fight the university departments, nor do we have to apologize for teaching subjects that students enjoy (always a somewhat suspect activity in the university).

What we need to do is to determine how the new (that is, the inclusive and innovative) humanities can be brought to bear to increase the range of knowledge necessary to the intellectual development (that is, their liberal education) and social acculturation of young Americans, and how some of the new humanities research and teaching techniques can be made to work for school teachers. That is why the ACLS project is set up to be a collaboration between pre-collegiate and post-secondary teachers in a loosely-organized seminar setting. That is why we have asked some of the leading college and university teachers in the humanities to participate in our seminars. And that is why we must all work with our other colleagues in individual schools and school districts to work out not only new teaching materials and routines, but also strategies for establishing them in our largest school systems. What is at stake is bringing the best in humanities education to the largest number of young Americans in the most effective fashion.

It is important to say that we need not concede anything in arguing for the importance of humanities education for youngsters. Today’s New York Times has an article reporting on a conference of economists convened to advise on how the United States can resume its economic growth. “Time and again,” the reporter notes, “the economists stressed the importance of improving ‘human capital,’ meaning that a better-educated, better-trained work force can lift a nation’s growth rate.” The sub-headline is: “One consensus among the bickering: educate the work force.”

I don’t doubt that most of the conferees and most readers of the Times will interpret the article to mean that Americans must be taught to count and do science, and so they must. But they must also be taught to read with discrimination, reason in complicated ways, appreciate the arts, and distinguish values. These things they will learn primarily from the humanities, and they are not frills. To paraphrase George Santayana, we must not neglect the utility of apparently useless knowledge. The humanities are not only educationally useful; they are indispensable.

And so I close as I started. Tonight is indeed the culmination of my dream of an ACLS K–12 project, but it is also the beginning of a more important aspiration—that a continuing collaboration between the humanites teachers and scholars who comprise ACLS will have begun tonight, a collaboration whose beneficiary will be all of our children, and all of us.

By now you will have guessed that I am counting on you to make me an educator. It is my best opportunity to “be like Mike.”